Like many automation engineers I get a steady stream of emails from ISA, MESA and other organizations with announcements about conferences, webinars and white papers. If the volume of email were an indication of viability it would seem that professional societies are alive and healthy. Yet, for the ones I belong to, many of the ones directly associated with the automation industry, seem to struggle far more than the ones I belong to that are associated with either a professional societies such as ASME, AIChE or IEEE or specific to a particular vendor or product such as a users group. In Control and other magazines, over the years there have been numerous articles and editorials about ISA's shrinking membership. MESA has tried to reinvent itself from its origins as the Manufacturing Execution Systems Association to the Manufacturing Enterprise Solutions Association. The World Batch Forum (WBF) and the Industrial Computing Society (ICS) have merged or faded away yet at one time were healthy and growing socieities.
So why do engineering societies and vendor/product specific user groups seem to prosper while manufacturing automation oriented groups seem to struggle? Certainly one reason is that new engineers enter the workforcefrom school and the student chapter affiliation that most engineering societies have serve as feeders. Since automation and manufacturing software (generically) are not usually academic disciplines they have no feeder groups. Likewise as more and more automation has moved into the realm of software and computer based control there are far fewer automation specific engineers than in the past. In essence we have automated the field of automation.
As a charter member of the ICS (now defunct) I can relate as to the lifecycle most societies follow. A group of like-minded professionals come together around a new or emerging technology or field to better understand it and promote its adoption and growth. They start out as a working group trying to define the boundaries, value and scope of this new field. As interest builds they start to offer conferences, seminars, webinars and other opportunities to educate others about the field. As interest and membership grows they need to hire staff to manage the day-to-day activities and run the events. They may see the need for standards which usually entails more staff to support that activity. Suddenly growth and membership to generate revenue to support the staff become key activities. Ad-hoc leadership yields to a formalized chain-of-command with succesion hierarchy. At this point the make-or-break point comes.
In the next posting I'll postulate as to why XYZ-Engineering societies and user groups seem to be able to endure while other groups like ICS and WBF faded away and those like ISA and MESA seem to never quite make the leap.